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Passover at Rikers Island: How the notorious jail complex holds a seder for Jewish inmates



(New York Jewish Week) — Miriam Tohill, a Jewish chaplain intern at Rikers Island, is looking forward to co-leading Passover seders for Jewish inmates this year for the first time. But conditions at the New York City jail complex are not ideal. 

For the seders, held on the first and second nights of the holiday, some 70 to 100 inmates will be bussed from different parts of the island complex to a gymnasium that “feels like a high school gym,” said Tohill, 32, who uses the pronouns “she” and “they.” Sending participants to hunt for the afikoman, a hidden piece of matzah, is “discouraged,” she added, “for obvious reasons.”

The seder tradition of putting pillows on the room’s flimsy folding chairs, they said, is likewise prohibited. And while the door of the gym, rather than a door to the outside, will be opened for Elijah the prophet, they said, “the symbolism is obviously muted.”

Beyond that, Tohill added, it may be a challenge to create a festive mood. Corrections officers will be sitting on bleachers at the side of the room, which has a “squeaky floor, very tall ceiling, [and] terrible acoustics.” 

Nonetheless, Tohill expects the seders at Rikers to be filled with meaning. She and others who work with Jewish inmates at the jail say that the holiday — which celebrates the ancient Jewish exodus from slavery to freedom — takes on a different resonance when celebrated by people currently behind bars.

“It’s both easier and harder to talk about slavery, freedom and hope when you’re incarcerated, but we’re all hoping for freedom and rehabilitation and growth in the future,” said Rabbi Gabriel Kretzmer Seed, Rikers’ Jewish chaplain. “People had beautiful insights about what freedom means to them, especially talking about how they feel free even when they’re incarcerated. I was very inspired by that.” 

Seed, who received ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the liberal Orthodox seminary in the Bronx, began working as a chaplain at Rikers in 2018. The jail has been criticized for harsh conditions, which include evidence of inmates caged in tiny showers and sleeping on floors next to a pile of excrement. The complex has also been the site of suicides, beatings and more. Nineteen people died at Rikers in 2022 — the jail’s highest death rate since 2013, and the city is required by law to close it by 2027, though whether that will be possible is unclear. 

Seed said that while Rikers can be a volatile and intense environment, it has also given him a sense of gratitude, highlighting the Jewish concept of teshuva, or repentance, and the idea that everyone deserves a second chance. Seed said Rikers’ Jewish inmates come from a range of religious backgrounds, from haredi Orthodox people educated in yeshivas to others who decided to explore their Judaism once they were incarcerated. He holds weekly services at the jail that draw up to 12 attendees;  this week’s teachings discussed the concepts of freedom and slavery as a precursor to the seders.

“I’m kind of buoyed by those values,” Seed said, referring to teshuva. “When I’m having a rough day, I leave my office, go to a housing area, and people are just so grateful for even a few visits, a few minutes when I step into their housing area, or when I get to teach and engage with people, and that just lifts me up and reminds me why I do this work.”

Year round, Rikers Island offers kosher food, which is provided by the city. Seed and Department of Corrections officials would not provide specifics on where the food comes from, saying only that it comes from “different caterers.” And matzah isn’t only available on Passover: Jewish inmates eat the unleavened bread year-round at Rikers because it is a kosher food option that is easily available.  

There are Orthodox volunteer groups that help bring kosher food into the jail, including members of L’asurim,  a nonprofit that supports prisoners, and the Lubavitch Youth Organization, a branch of the Chabad Hasidic movement. 

Rabbi Shmuel Tevel, who is active in the Lubavitch group, told the New York Jewish Week that he visits Jewish inmates regularly at Rikers and other prisons across the state. “For an inmate sitting in a prison cell in those darkest moments, in a state where they feel they’re at the end of their rope, they need to tie a knot and hang on,” he said. “That’s what we give them.” 

The Lubavitch Youth Organization outside of Rikers Island doing outreach work during Purim. (Courtesy)

Ahead of Passover, his group is delivering 40 pounds of matzah, along with grape juice, haroset and vacuum-packed seder plates to some cells whose inmates won’t be allowed to attend the seder.

Zalman Tevel, Shmuel’s brother, who runs the group’s volunteer initiative at Rikers, told the New York Jewish Week that he spoke to a guard after visiting inmates during the holiday of Purim last month, and the guard told him the inmates were “in a better state.”

“They are closer to God,” he said. “It leaves a very good impact.”

Tohill described her work on Rikers, which includes working with inmates in other ways, in similar terms. Tohill said the work allows her to provide Jewish teachings in “a place that has so little space for joy, or God.” She compared the seder at Rikers to the tabernacle that the ancient Israelites built in the desert

“We put all this care into it, knowing that it’s temporary, and we’re going to take it down again,” Tohill said. “We are in the wilderness and desperately need a place to meet Hashem. It is so temporary and imperfect, but that makes it even more worth putting the time into.”

For Tohill, co-leading the seders is part of their master’s project at the Union Theological Seminary, a traditionally Protestant seminary in Manhattan that now focuses on “training people of all faiths and none who are called to the work of social justice in the world.” Tohill’s project explores the meaning of Passover for oppressed people.

“I was in a position to ask, what does this Seder do for us spiritually, emotionally, communally?” Tohill said. “What does it promise to us if we have no access to freedom for people who are incarcerated? That became a big question for me, a theological question about what does this ritual do and how do we as Jews think about liberation?” 

Tohill, who lives in the uptown Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, said that some of the inmates have written about their personal stories and will share how they relate to Passover at the seder.  

“We have congregants who have written poems about what sense they make of the Exodus story or of the four cups of wine,” Tohill said, referencing a central ritual of the seder. “We have congregants who have done drawings about their family that, to them, feel related to the Passover story in different ways.” 

Requests to speak to an inmate planning to attend a seder, or to see inmates’ drawings or writings, were denied by the Department of Corrections.

Tohill called Rikers “a broken system” and said celebrating Passover feels particularly urgent there. They compared Rikers Island to “a floating trash heap in the middle of the ocean that we don’t want anyone to notice.”

“Passover is an opportunity to notice and ask who is being made invisible,” Tohill said. “The rest of the people in New York City who are not directly impacted by the prison industrial complex get to pretend it’s not happening. I would like to ask that, this Pesach,  people take the opportunity to stop pretending.”

The post Passover at Rikers Island: How the notorious jail complex holds a seder for Jewish inmates appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Local News

Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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